“When It Rains,” “Restless Heart Syndrome,” “World So Cold”…I scrolled through my finished playlist with decided satisfaction, hitting the space bar on my bulky hand-me-down Mac and turning up the volume in my headphones. The soft guitar and choir voices of Yellowcard’s “Paper Walls” title track played through the speakers in my ears, coming to a quiet stop right before the amps kicked in and began to dissolve the churning sensation in my gut.
Let’s take what hurts and write it all down on these paper walls in this empty house. The words echoed in my head alongside those whispered about me earlier that day at school. Gorilla, gorilla, gorilla. I wrote them all down in my current journal. I glanced at my violin sitting in its case at the foot of my bed, then at the computer’s clock. I’ll practice after a few more songs.
I was determined to be conventionally different.
When I was in elementary school, I avoided talent shows because my performing art needed to be explained. I, a rebellious ten-year-old, could not muster the interest to publicly share my culture’s music; as a result, I raised myself on rock, delving into a world of electric guitars to escape the scrutinizing eyes of my classmates.
I’ve been studying and playing Indian Classical–Carnatic–music throughout my entire life, with my primary instrument being the violin. I spent the majority of my free time going to classes, preparing for performances, and learning new pieces. For a long time, my music library consisted of varnams, kritis, and thillanas that I would listen to on repeat in order to learn them for myself; however, I quickly realized it was difficult to connect with fifth, sixth, and seventh graders who had interests of their own, especially when those interests lay within a realm familiar to the Western world… so just as quickly, my music library accumulated the pop punk that is so often associated with angsty, early teen years. My classmates sang along with the pop tunes on the radio, but I danced in my room to tracks from American Idiot and Ocean Avenue. I established myself as the girl with the “different” taste–the kind of different that didn’t need any context to be understood.
As I listened to my playlists, I created worlds with pen and paper. I’d write stories, sketch characters, and build a universe I wished could become my reality. One of my friends’ dads shared a similar love for stories. He’d regularly encourage me to continue creating, asking me about my current projects. “Tell me a story,” he’d say as he, my friend, and I would go for weekly runs on various trails near our homes.
“So, the character’s name is Kat, and she loves to read and write, and one day this random typewriter shows up on her doorstep addressed to her, but she doesn’t know who sent it,” I explained, “and she suspects her best friend David but turns out it’s not actually him. She’s thirteen and going to be a freshman, her favorite food is peanut butter sandwiches, and she has two older brothers, one younger sister, and a dog named Moose.”
“I like it, Arya,” my friend’s dad smiled. “She sounds a lot like you. What if she grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha stories and her favorite food was any dish with paneer?"
I felt my head start to hurt. “I don’t know, maybe.” No, thanks. Kat had shiny, long, auburn hair and intelligent green eyes. Kat had cute freckles and cheeks that would flush slightly pink when she was at a loss for words. Kat looked like the characters I had read about in all my favorite books, and Kat was pretty. She didn’t need any frame of reference, and anything suited her.
There wasn’t a way I could maintain that if her background was that close to mine. Kat was supposed to be who I wanted to be, not who I was.
I aged with my stories. A year after Kat was born, I entered high school myself. I switched out from my tiny private school to a much larger public school–I knew no one going in, but I was excited by the prospect of a completely fresh start. Through the first couple years, many of my classmates had no idea I played an instrument until my junior year, when I picked up my practice and classes even further.
“Hey, we’re going to get milkshakes after school, wanna come?”
“Sorry, I can’t, I have violin class.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you did music. Why aren’t you in orchestra?”
“Uh…I just do enough music outside of school.”
Senior year rolled around, friend groups shifted, and I found my music library rapidly shifting once again, this time introducing hip hop and R&B. I started to subconsciously break down lyrics as I did with the stories we read in English classes, slowly registering the differences in style and culture between these artists and ones to which I had previously listened. I listened to To Pimp a Butterfly and Lemonade religiously, and I stumbled upon Raja Kumari, a South Indian musician making a name for herself through her style that takes influences from Carnatic music. I wrote and wrote as I began to piece together a new perspective on my own life; growing up as a person of color in America is very different than growing up as a white person. A simple revelation, yes–but one that took me sixteen years to reach. The quietly disgusted glances at my lunches as a child, the whispers and giggles as pre-teen girls called me “gorilla,” and the reluctance to share my musical background were illuminated. My lunches were parathas or sambar sadam instead of PB&Js; the hair on my body is dark, not blonde; the kind of violin I play is Indian, not “normal.”
That year, a couple people in my class published a powerful article in our school newspaper addressing a year-old Leadership-organized event: the Color Dyephoon. Much like the well-known Color Run, it centered around the act of dousing people in colored powders of all shades. “Wear all white and get your cameras ready!”
The article spoke about the importance of acknowledging casual cultural appropriation; the Color Dyephoon was yet another example of claiming aspects of a culture as an “original idea,” and as a result, profiting from it. It was refreshing to see criticism much like what had been going through my head written in print, published through a vehicle accessible to the entire student body.
In all the advertising that Leadership pushed around the school, there was not a single mention of the Indian festival Holi and its origins. Frustration bubbled inside me as images of Coldplay’s “Hymn for a Weekend” video flashed across my mind: white skin coated in color, religious and spiritual symbols serving as a psychedelic background for this dreamy song. “I don’t know why people are calling it cultural appropriation. I thought it was a beautiful video,” my uncle had said when it released. That’s because you already know this is just a fraction of what exists in our culture. The majority of the people in America don’t.
The Color Dyephoon, yet another example of narrowed and diluted culture taken for profit, was happening right next to my everyday existence, and I wished that the Leadership team would simply acknowledge the inspiration behind the event, especially since it was taking place in the same time frame as proper Holi celebrations across the Bay Area. This event was inspired by an Indian festival in which the arrival of spring is celebrated. I discussed my frustrations with friends and teachers in hopes of sparking bigger conversation about how things like this could be avoided in the future.
After the article’s release and a week before the second annual Color Dyephoon, some friends and I roamed downtown in search of a place for lunch. “Sushi?” “Nah, the good place is closed today.”
“Curry Up Now?” one of them suggested, referring to a restaurant inspired by North Indian street food.
“Eh, I’m not really feeling Indian food right now.” “What, too ‘cultural appropriation-ey’ for you?” someone else taunted.
No. I just don’t feel like eating Indian food.
I hated that an outside perspective was needed to deem my heritage “cool.” I hated being labeled as over-reactive and hypersensitive when I brought up how little things could be easily changed to avoid adding to a bigger, harmful narrative created for a culture by people not in it. I hated the canned aesthetic that my background along with those of so many others had been reduced to by the need for props and themes.
I couldn’t wait for another fresh start.
I came into college armed with pride in my culture, comfortable with the idea that I can define my own relationship with my heritage. I'm very involved with our campus' radio station, and I've found that I'm one of the few people of color (and even fewer Indian people) who inhabit it; this sparked a desire to involve myself even further. I found myself spending longer afternoons at the station, hanging around even after my classes for the day had finished and I had the option to go back to my dorm. I sometimes stayed back late nights, sitting cross-legged in the orange chair in the closet-sized office attached to the station lobby, working on chemistry homework in the company of extensive playlists and Genelec speakers.
Oftentimes, though, I wasn’t the only person present; I remember one night that began as studying turned into a music-planning session with a fellow radio-station frequenter. We connected over a desire to keep up music practice just for the sake of learning as much as possible, shooting back and forth artist recommendations like Shankar Tucker and Blowzabella, and quickly came to the conclusion that we should try to create something together that would bring together music from around the world. A few weeks later, we performed a Carnatic piece and a fiddle tune at the station’s quarterly open mic.
While I am one of few Indian people at the radio station, my school’s demographic as a whole is largely Asian, and especially South Asian. I found myself surrounded by more individuals who shared a similar background to me, and I would always feel a weight lift off my shoulders when someone would empathize with my childhood struggles of culture-based shame.
“I have friends who do that, too,” I once mentioned to my cousin when I noticed the alternate name he had given for his boba order: Sean. “Kinda sucks that people can learn names like Schwarzenegger but not long Indian names.”
“Yeah, well, lucky you,” my other cousin cut in, “you don’t have to change your name in coffee shops because your name is so white.”
“Um, I don’t think it’s a white name? I think it originated in India, but there are a lot of other regions with similar–”
“No, it’s a white name. Like, look at Game of Thrones. That came out way before you were born, the name has European roots.”
“But George R.R. Martin used an Indian name because he wanted ‘exotic’ fantasy na–”
“Honey, your name is white. Don’t even try to argue."
My throat turned raw. Don’t even try to argue. Later, I searched it up online: “arya name origin.” The first results:
आर्य / آریا
Word/name: Sanskrit, Old Iranian.
Meaning: noble one. I held onto my Indian name just the other day as two large, white men shouted at me about their hatred for Indian women and their brown skin. I passed by them on the sidewalk, my bones rattling and heart pounding underneath my brown skin.
The shame I had felt growing up quickly manifested itself into anger. I try to channel most of it into productive reflection–I know that by no means can I completely understand the experiences of all people of color, but I want to at least be able to vocalize my own and create space for others to do the same.
However, there remains some anger that I will still don’t quite know how to address. Anger at little things, like never being able to find my first name on pre-personalized items found in gift stores or having to constantly hit “Ignore” to avoid the little red lines that appear below my last name as my computer tells me it’s a word spelled wrong. Anger that when the scarce opportunity for media representation arises, it’s often capitalized on by the wrong people. Anger that I felt the need to hide my culture for so long, and anger that so many others may feel similarly. Anger that some people now feel the need to tell me I’m whitewashed, that I’m not Indian enough, that I don’t have the capacity to understand my culture. Anger that there’s a seemingly set definition for “Indian,” anger that there’s one for “American” as well. Anger that I (and far too many people of color) have had to stomach being cussed out in broad daylight on a well-populated street based on appearance. Anger that people are physically and emotionally harmed.
Anger that people are killed simply because of the way they look.
As terrifying as it is to be openly proud of my identity, I believe I must be because I’m lucky enough to have a platform to be so. I grew up in the Bay Area and now attend a large public school in which I personally have opportunities to express the need for change. The world is full of stories, and it’s a shame that only a select kind get to be told.
Fingers crossed that “I am conventionally different” eventually turns into “I exist without fear.”